Carla BlackHow to grow Heliconia, brightest tropical flower

You’ve seen them, even if you didn’t know what they were called. Heliconias are the ultimate exotic flowers, starring in arrangements in tropical hotels around the globe and as far away as outer space – on television, anyway; heliconias greeted intergalactic ambassadors on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Closer to home, they can’t be beat for providing fantastic foliage and bright color in tropical and subtropical gardens. Stunning long-lasting cut flowers are a big bonus.

Heliconia caribaea

Heliconia caribaea

Heliconia lennartiana

Heliconia lennartiana

Heliconia lennartiana

Heliconia lennartiana

Heliconia is the only genus in its family, Heliconiaceae, in the order Zingiberales. Its most famous cousins are bananas (Musaceae), gingers (Zingiberaceae), birds of paradise (Strelitziaceae) and cannas (Cannaceae).

Heliconia rostrata

Heliconia rostrata

The colorful bracts, always in shades of red, yellow, orange and green, protect the true flowers that last only a day or two and are replaced by others over the months-long life of the inflorescence.

Heliconia true flower

Heliconia true flower

Green-crowned brilliant & Heliconia stricta. Photo scott.zona

Green-crowned brilliant hummingbird on Heliconia stricta. Photo scott.zona

Astonishingly, all of the gorgeous forms of heliconia are made by nature. Humans have not been able to successfully hand-pollinate heliconia, so there are no artificial hybrids. Hummingbirds are the only pollinators observed by scientists, though many other creatures visit the flowers. Natural hybrids are rather common, thanks to incessant visits by those hummers. Humans do have a role in new forms, though: seeds of cultivated plants often produce new hybrids, thanks to hummingbirds in gardens visiting numerous species that are never near each other in nature.

Now that you know about the role of hummingbirds, which are found only in the New World, you’ll not be surprised to learn that the approximately 250 species of heliconias are native to the Americas (with the exception of six species in the South Pacific which are pollinated by bats). Correspondingly, gingers are native to the Old World; there is just one genus of ginger in the Neotropics: Renealmia. Heliconias are thoroughly tropical, with very few species withstanding sustained temperatures below 10ºC (50ºF).

Heliconia hirsuta

Heliconia hirsuta

Heliconia barryana (0)

Heliconia barryana

When it comes to identifying species, Heliconias are categorized primarily by their inflorescence habits: upright or pendent, and a flat (distichous) or spiral bract arrangement. The leaf arrangement of most heliconias is musoid, which means their leaves look like those of banana: six or eight large leaves extending above a longish stem. But to break the rule, Heliconia hirsuta, for example, is zingiberoid, which means it has many small leaves evenly spaced along the stem, like a ginger. The flowers of Heliconia hirsuta and Heliconia psittacorum look similar, but the foliage clearly distinguishes them.

Heliconia platystachys

Heliconia platystachys

Heliconia hirsuta yellow panama

Heliconia hirsuta ‘Yellow Panama’

Heliconia irrasa

Heliconia irrasa

Heliconia lankesteri

Heliconia lankesteri

Heliconia ramonensis var. lanuginosa

Heliconia ramonensis var. lanuginosa

Like other plants in the order Zingiberales, heliconias are most often propagated by division of rhizomes. My good friend Jan Hintze wrote about propagating heliconia from rhizomes for GardenDrum.

Seeds on Heliconia faunorum

Seeds on Heliconia faunorum

Heliconias can also be grown from seed. It is a longer process, but seeds are sometimes the only way to get a new variety, and seedling plants are often stronger than divisions. Ripe heliconia fruits hold between one and three seeds that turn blue when ripe (except for those bat-pollinated species, whose fruits turn red). Jan also describes how to grow heliconias from seeds.

Seeds on Heliconia yellow panama

Seeds on Heliconia hirsuta ‘Yellow Panama’

 

 

I enjoy trading heliconia seeds for any other tropical plant seeds, so drop me a line if you like to barter!

Though a few varieties have stained the entire genus with the reputation for running wild through the garden, many heliconias form close clumps. Before choosing a heliconia for your garden, try to visit the adult plant in the ground. You’ll see the overall size and spread, and be able to put it in the right spot.

Heliconia psittacorum

Heliconia psittacorum

Large Heliconia stilesii at Las Cruces

Large Heliconia stilesii at Las Cruces

The overall size of heliconia species ranges from the smallest Heliconia psittacorum, usually a meter tall and Heliconia stricta ‘Dwarf Jamaican’ at under 50cm, to the biggest, Heliconia titanum at 10 m or more. Commonly grown garden varieties, even in the same species, such as Heliconia stricta, can vary from under a meter tall to three meters depending on the cultivar.

Heliconia titanum

Giant Heliconia titanum

 

 

A photo of the flower or a plant in a pot won’t tell you what you need to know for proper placement in the garden, so be sure to get more information.

The thickness of Heliconia titanum's stem gives you an indication of its size

The thickness of Heliconia titanum‘s stem gives you an indication of its size

 

 

 

 

If you live in the subtropics or in a dry climate, start with the tried and true heliconia varieties offered by local nurseries. Then once you are successful, move on to varieties from farther afield.

Heliconias don’t suffer from many problems in the garden, especially if a few basic needs are met. They want warm weather, regular watering and plenty of organic matter in the form of mulch. The amount of direct sun they tolerate depends on the variety, but most look best in bright shade. Some gardeners fertilize and others don’t; I think it depends on how much leaf litter and other organic material is decomposing in place. Animals and insects that root around for juicy rhizomes will get into heliconias; those of you with problem creatures are all too familiar with them, and you have to take the same precautions with heliconias that you do with other related plants. Few fungi, bacteria or insect pests cause serious problems if the plant’s basic wants are provided: warmth, water and mulch.

Lower-growing Heliconia 'Dwarf Jamaican'

Lower-growing Heliconia ‘Dwarf Jamaican’

Maintenance consists of removing old leaves and stems that have finished flowering, on a schedule that fits your desire for neatness in the garden; the plants don’t mind old stems fading away in place, and they withstand regular cutting of healthy stems, as is done in cut flower farms. If you can chop and drop the spent leaves and stems and leave them as mulch at the base of the plant, all the better.

Online resources:

Heliconia Society International
Heliconia Society of Puerto Rico

and websites of the many nurseries that sell heliconias.

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Carla Black

About Carla Black

I have lived and gardened in Panama in the Western Highlands near Volcán, Chiriquí for 20 years. My favorite plants are Heliconias, especially our native Panamanian species. There's nothing better than heading into the backcountry to see them in habitat. I currently serve as president of the Heliconia Society International.

4 thoughts on “How to grow Heliconia, brightest tropical flower

  1. Hi Carla,

    I am a fairly new resident (4 years) to Saipan (Pacific Island) from the USA (Virginia). I am learning about tropical plants (a new hobby). Saipan was a large battle site in WWII and many plants were destroyed in the “after burning” of the land. We have an endangered “fruit bat” population here (no hummingbirds). I find it interesting that the Pacific Island heliconia are pollinated by bats, and I’m wondering if that is why heliconia seem so rare on Saipan – or if it is b/c the landscape was bombed/burned. — In any event, I am hoping to introduce, some beautiful tropical plants and species to the island and wonder if you have any suggestions, based on your knowledge and experience. — We do not have any “plant societies” here, that I have found.

    I would love to trade for some seeds of heliconia, (or purchase if you wish)… We do have Donni Sali (hot peppers that are loved by birds). I am not sure what other fruits or plant seeds you may be interested in, but I am happy to discuss further.

    Kindly,
    Shelley

  2. Carla Black on said:

    Dear Shelley,

    Congratulations on your adventurous move to Saipan! I suspect that the main reason there are few heliconias is that humans usually plant them by rhizome divisions, which are heavy and have to pass quarantine inspection. Then, it’s true, any plants already on the island won’t produce many seeds, though the clumps will grow and be ready to divide in just a few years.

    I would be happy to trade seeds with you! Let’s continue the conversation by email. Please write to me at carla @ volcanbaru.com

    Best,
    Carla

  3. David L:anclos on said:

    Good morning My brother. My Name is David and I am from Louisiana. I would ask if you have a few seeds of different Heliconia you would share with me to get started. I seen one from trinidad called “Heliconia Baslier”. Please email me back my brother.
    thanks
    Brother David
    dlanclos@gmail.com

    • Hello Brother David,

      I am always happy to share and trade seeds! I will write to your gmail address.

      Best,
      Carla

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